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THERE are times when death is a shock, but not a grief. And so it was with Nanette Le Beau. With her own eyes she had looked upon the terrible fate of her husband, and it was not in her gentle soul to weep or wish him alive again. At last there had overtaken him what le bon Dieu had intended him to receive some day: justice. And for the baby's sake more than her own Nanette was not sorry. Durant, whose soul was only a little less wicked than the dead man's, had not even waited for a prayer had not asked her what to do. He had chopped a hole in the frozen earth and had buried Le Beau almost before his body was cold. And Nanette was not sorry for that. The Brute was gone. He was gone for ever. He would never strike her again. And because of the baby she offered up a prayer of gratitude to God.
In his prison-cage of sapling bars Miki cringed on his belly at the end of his chain. He had scarcely moved since those terrible moments in which he had torn the life out of the man-brute's throat. He had not even growled at Durant when he dragged the body away. Upon him had fallen a fearful and overwhelming oppression. He was not thinking of his own brutal beatings, or of the death which Le Beau had been about to inflict upon him with the club; he did not feel the presence of pain in his bruised and battered body, nor in his bleeding jaws and whip-lashed eyes. He was thinking of Nanette, the woman. Why had she run away with that terrible cry when he killed the man-beast? Was it not the man-beast who had struck her down, and whose hands were at her white throat when he sprang the length of his chain and tore out his jugular? Then why was it that she ran away, and did not come back? He whimpered softly.
The afternoon was almost gone, and the early gloom of mid-winter night in the Northland was settling thickly over the forests. In that gloom the dark face of Durant appeared at the bars of Miki's prison. Instinctively Miki had hated this foxhunter from the edge of the Barrens, just as he had hated Le Beau, for in their brutish faces as well as in their hearts they were like brothers. Yet he did not growl at Durant as he peered through. He did not even move.
"Ugh! le diable!" shuddered Durant.
Then he laughed. It was a low, terrible laugh, half smothered in his coarse black beard, and it sent an odd chill through Miki.
He turned after that and went into the cabin. Nanette rose to meet him, her great dark eyes glowing in a face dead white. She had not yet risen above the shock of Le Beau's tragic death, and yet in those eyes there was already something reborn. It had not been there when Durant came to the cabin with Le Beau that afternoon. He looked at her strangely as she stood with the baby in her arms. She was another Nanette. He felt uneasy. Why was it that a few hours ago he had laughed boldly when her husband had cursed her and said vile things in her presence and now he could not meet the steady gaze of her eyes? Dieu! he had never before observed how lovely she was! He drew himself together, and stated the business in his mind.
"You will not want the dog," he said. "I will take him away."
Nanette did not answer. She seemed scarcely to be breathing as she looked at him. It seemed to him that she was waiting for him to explain; and then the inspiration to lie leapt into his mind.
"You know, there was to be the big fight between his dog and mine at Post Fort O' God at the New Year carnival," he went on, shuffling his heavy feet. "For that, Jacques – your husband – was training the wild dog. And when I saw that oochun – that wolf devil – tearing at the bars of the cage I knew he would kill my dog as a fox kills a rabbit. So we struck a bargain, and for the two cross foxes and the ten red which I have outside I bought him." (The vraisemblance of his lie gave him courage. It sounded like truth, and Jacques, the dead man, was not there to repudiate his claim.) "So he is mine," he finished a little exultantly, "and I will take him to the Post, and will fight him against any dog or wolf in all the North. Shall I bring in the skins, madame?"
"He is not for sale," said Nanette, the glow in her eyes deepening. "He is my dog – mine and the baby's. Do you understand, Henri Durant? He is not for sale!"
"Oui," gasped Durant, amazed.
"And when you reach Post Fort O' God, m'sieu, you will tell le Facteur that Jacques is dead, and how he died, and say that some one must be sent for the baby and me. We will stay here until then."
"Oui," said Durant again, backing to the door. He had never seen her like that. He wondered how Jacques Le Beau could swear at her, and strike her. For himself, he was afraid. Standing there with those wonderful eyes and white face, with the baby in her arms, and her shining hair over her breasts, she made him think of a picture he had once seen of the Blessed Lady.
He went out through the door and back to the sapling cage where Miki lay. Softly he spoke through the bars.
"Ow, bęte," he called; "she will not sell you. She keeps you because you fought for her, and killed mon ami, Jacques Le Beau. And so I must take you my own way. In a little while the moon will be up, and then I will slip a noose over your head at the end of a pole, and will choke you so quickly she will not hear a sound. And who will know where you are gone, if the cage door is left open? And you will fight for me at Post Fort O' God. Mon Dieu! how you will fight! I swear it will do the ghost of Jacques Le Beau good to see what happens there." He went away, to where he had left his light sledge and two dogs in the edge of the timber, and waited for the moon to rise.
Still Miki did not move. A light had appeared in the window of the cabin, and his eyes were fixed on it yearningly as the low whine gathered in his throat again. His world no longer lay beyond that window. The Woman and the baby had obliterated in him all desire but to be with them.
In the cabin Nanette was thinking of him – and of Durant. The man's words came to her again, vividly, significantly: "You will not want the dog." Yes, all the forest people would say that same thing – even le Facteur himself, when he heard. She would not want the dog! And why not? Because he had killed Jacques Le Beau, her husband, in defence of her? Because he had freed her from the bondage of The Brute? Because God had sent him to the end of his chain in that terrible moment that the baby Nanette might live, as the other had not, and that she might grow up with laughter on her lips instead of sobs? In her there rose suddenly a thought that fanned the new flame in her heart. It must have been le bon Dieu! Others might doubt, but she – never. She recalled all that Le Beau had told her about the wild dog – how for many days he had robbed the traps, and the terrific fight he had made when at last he was caught. And of all that The Brute had said there stood out most the words he had spoken one day.
"He is a devil, but he was not born of wolf. Non, some time, a long time ago, he was a white man's dog."
A white man's dog!
Her soul thrilled. Once – a long time ago – he had known a master with a white heart, just as she had known a girlhood in which the flowers bloomed and the birds sang. She tried to look back, but she could not see very far. She could not vision that day, less than a year ago, when Miki, an angular pup, came down out of the Farther North with Challoner; she could not vision the strange comradeship between the pup and Neewa, the little black bear cub, nor that tragic day when they had fallen out of Challoner's canoe into the swift stream that had carried them over the waterfall and into the Great Adventure which had turned Neewa into a grown bear and Miki into a wild dog. But in her heart she felt the things which she could not see. Miki had not come by chance. Something greater than that had sent him.
She rose quietly, so that she would not waken the baby in the crib, and opened the door. The moon was just rising over the forest and through the glow of it she went to the cage. She heard the dog's joyous whine, and then she felt the warm caress of his tongue upon her bare hands as she thrust them between the sapling bars.
"Non, non; you are not a devil," she cried softly, her voice filled with a strange tremble. "O-o-ee, my Soketaao, I prayed, prayed – and you came. Yes, on my knees each night I prayed to Our Blessed Lady that she might have mercy on my baby, and make the sun in heaven shine for her through all time. And you came! And the dear God does not send devils in answer to prayer. Non; never!"
And Miki, as though some spirit had given him the power to understand, rested the weight of his bruised and beaten head on her hands.
From the edge of the forest Durant was watching.
He had caught the flash of light from the door and had seen Nanette go to the cage, and his eyes did not leave her until she returned into the cabin. He laughed as he went to his fire and finished making the wahgun he was fastening to the end of a long pole. This wahgun and the pole added to his own cleverness were saving him twelve good fox skins, and he continued to chuckle there in the fireglow as he thought how easy it was to beat a woman's wits. Nanette was a fool to refuse the pelts, and Jacques was – dead. It was a most lucky combination of circumstances for him. Fortune had surely come his way. On le bęte, as he called the wild dog, he would gamble all that he possessed in the big fight. And he would win.
He waited until the light in the cabin went out before he approached the cage again. Miki heard him coming. At a considerable distance he saw him, for the moon was already turning the night into day. Durant knew the ways of dogs. With them he employed a superior reason where Le Beau had used the club and the rawhide. So he came up openly and boldly, and, as if by accident, dropped the end of the pole between the bars. With his hands against the cage, apparently unafraid, he began talking in a casual way. He was different from Le Beau. Miki watched him closely for a space and then let his eyes rest again on the darkened cabin window. Stealthily Durant began to take advantage of his opportunity. A little at a time he moved the end of the pole until it was over Miki's head, with the deadly bowstring and its open noose hanging down. He was an adept in the use of the wahgun. Many foxes and wolves, and even a bear, he had caught that way. Miki, numbed by the cold, scarcely felt the babiche noose as it settled softly about his neck. He did not see Durant brace himself, with his feet against the running-log of the cage. Then, suddenly, Durant lurched himself backward, and it seemed to Miki as though a giant trap of steel had closed about his neck. Instantly his wind was cut off. He could make no sound as he struggled frantically to free himself. Hand over hand Durant dragged him to the bars, and there, with his feet still braced, he choked with his whole weight until – when at last he let up on the wahgun – Miki collapsed as if dead. Ten seconds later Durant was looping a muzzle over his closed jaws. He left the cage door open when he went back to his sledge, carrying Miki in his arms. Nanette's slow wits would never guess, he told himself. She would think that le bęte had escaped into the forest.
It was not his scheme to club Miki into serfdom, as Le Beau had failed to do. Durant was wiser than that. In his crude and merciless way he had come to know certain phenomena of the animal mind, He was not a psychologist; on the other hand brutality had not utterly blinded him. So, instead of lashing Miki to the sledge as Le Beau had fastened him to his improvised drag, Durant made his captive comfortable, covering him with a warm blanket before he began his journey eastward. He made sure, however, that there was no flaw in the muzzle about Miki's jaws, and that the free end of the chain to which he was still fastened was well hitched to the Gee-bar of his sledge.
When these things were done Durant set off in the direction of Fort O' God, and if Jacques Le Beau could have seen him then he would have had good reason to guess at his elation. By taint of birth and blood Durant was a gambler first, and a trapper afterward. He set his traps that he might have the thrill of wagering his profits, and for half a dozen successive years he had won at the big annual dog fight at Post Fort O' God. But this year he had been half afraid. His fear had not been of Jacques Le Beau and Netah, but of the half-breed away over on Red Belly Lake. Grouse Piet was the half-breed's name, and the "dog" that he was going to put up at the fight was half wolf. Therefore, in the foolish eagerness of his desire, had Durant offered two cross foxes and ten reds – the price of five dogs and not one – for the possession of Le Beau's wild dog. And now that he had him for nothing, and Nanette was poorer by twelve skins, he was happy. For he had, now a good match for Grouse Piet's half wolf, and he would chance his money and his credit at the Post to the limit.
When Miki came back to his senses Durant stopped his dogs, for he had been watching closely for this moment. He bent over the sledge and began talking, not in Le Beau's brutal way, but in a careless chummy sort of voice, and with his mittened hand he patted his captive's head. This was a new thing to Miki, for he knew that it was not the hand of Nanette, but of a man-beast, and the softness of his nest in the blanket, over which Henri had thrown a bear skin, was also new. A short time ago he was frozen and stiff. Now he was warm and comfortable. So he did not move. And Durant exulted in his cleverness. He did not travel far in the night, but stopped four or five miles from Nanette's cabin, and built a fire. Over this he boiled coffee and roasted meat. He allowed the meat to roast slowly, turning it round and round on a wooden spit, so that the aroma of it grew thick and inviting in the air. He had fastened his two sledge dogs fifty paces away, but the sledge was close to the fire, and he watched the effect on Miki of the roasting meat. Since the days of his puppyhood with Challoner a smell like that which came from the meat had not filled Miki's nostrils, and at last Durant saw him lick his chops and heard the click of his teeth. He chuckled in his beard. Still he waited another quarter of an hour. Then he pulled the meat off the spit, cut it up, and gave a half of it to Miki. And Miki ate it ravenously.
clever man was Henri Durant!